NIGHTS out in Paisley generally aren’t recommended, but this was an evening when Hearts hosted a party to remember on the town’s Greenhill Road. VIPs included goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald, who produced an inspired penalty save, plus Jamie Hamill and Rudi Skacel, whose goals secured a Scottish Cup semi-final date with Celtic next month.
Those occasions don’t come along too often for supporters of the Edinburgh club, and they rightly celebrated as they bounded out of St Mirren Park last night. They had watched their team reach the competition’s penultimate round courtesy of a resilient display and some clinical finishing in this quarter-final replay. MacDonald’s early penalty stop from Graham Carey laid the foundations, with goals from Hamill and Skacel beginning the revelry in earnest.
St Mirren, after failing to take the lead from the spot, were punished as their cup campaign ended. Skacel’s strike four minutes from time brought the realisation that Hearts would be meeting Celtic at Hampden Park on April 15. The volume promptly increased in the away end, to such an extent that St Mirren may need to issue letters of apology to Greenhill Road residents today due to the noise.
Those returning to the Capital couldn’t have cared less, and they weren’t for keeping quiet. They were shouting from the rooftops. St Mirren controlled much of the original tie at Tynecastle and were similarly threatening in the first half last night. However, as early as the 13th minute, signs were this could be a memorable night for the 1500-strong travelling support. MacDonald threw himself down to his left to save Carey’s penalty – awarded for handball against Marius Zaliukas – and in doing so imbued his team-mates with sufficient belief to go on and win the tie.
“I thought it must have been a very good game for those people watching,” said Paulo Sergio, the Hearts manager. “Like the first game, St Mirren started better, they were very creative and had lots of happiness in their legs and we were not playing but after that, we took control. The penalty was a crucial moment. It was a great save by Jamie, although it was stupid from us.
“We started to play well after that, then Jamie scored his goal and we could have scored more goals to kill the game before half-time. We created problems and the defenders handled their long balls and high balls very well. Our supporters were fantastic, their backing was amazing and I hope they are very proud of the team after tonight. We have a big game for us all to look forward to.”
Hearts have made hard work of this season’s Scottish Cup progress. Auchinleck Talbot were only defeated 1-0 thanks to a late Gordon Smith goal in the fourth round, and since then replays have been necessary to dispense with both St Johnstone and St Mirren. Yet Sergio’s side now have three wins and a draw from their last four games and seem to be building momentum again.
St Mirren almost seized an early advantage when Carey’s swerving cross bounced awkwardly in front of MacDonald, who was alert enough to push the ball for a corner. The goalkeeper then stopped a first-time attempt from Jim Goodwin as the hosts pressed for a breakthrough. They would have expected it to come from the penalty given when Zaliukas needlessly handled another swirling delivery from Carey whilst under pressure from Steven Thompson.
Nigel Hasselbaink headed the bouncing ball beyond MacDonald after it struck Zaliukas’ hand but referee Stevie O’Reilly blew his whistle a fraction earlier and pointed to the spot. Carey’s low powerful shot from 12 yards was repelled by the frighteningly quick MacDonald, thus adding to the hosts’ frustration.
At the opposite end, Craig Samson’s legs denied Andy Driver before Hamill struck the St Mirren goalframe with a raking effort from almost 30 yards. That was a portent of things to come from the former Kilmarnock player. Hearts’ endeavour was not in question as they contested every ball and displayed remarkable competitive edge. This was rewarded when Hamill opened the scoring on 31 minutes.
Again it was a shot from distance, although this time nearer the 20-yard mark than the 30. After the St Mirren midfielder Steven Thomson cheaply gifted possession to Danny Grainger, the full-back’s cross was cleared by Marc McAusland straight to Hamill. He returned it first time with a crisp strike which nestled in the bottom right corner of Samson’s net.
Hearts sensed their best chance of scoring further might be from distance, with Craig Beattie and Ian Black both unleashing dangerous shots from outside the penalty area moments before the interval. Samson parried Beattie’s attempt whilst Black’s landed just wide of target.
The second half was rather less fervid but there was no relent in the tenacity of the tackles in what was overall quite a physical encounter. Scoring chances were restricted, though. Skacel stung Samson’s palms on 70 minutes before MacDonald took to the air to punch Gary Teale’s dangerous cross clear.
Then came the moment that is inevitable when St Mirren meet Hearts: Rudi Skacel scored. Driver, having endured a quiet evening generally, supplied a left-sided cross which the predatory Czech controlled and stroked past Samson for his tenth goal in six games against St Mirren since returning to Tynecastle. With that, the celebrations properly kicked in.
“I’m frustrated in terms of decisions going against us and the decisions we made for the goals we conceded,” said the St Mirren manager Danny Lennon in reference to the penalty incident. “Referees can wait to see if there is an advantage to be gained. I felt the goal should have stood and that’s not sour grapes after missing the penalty.”
Lennon felt a second penalty was warranted shortly after the first when Andy Webster indulged in a spot of grappling with Steven Thompson. “Steven held the ball up very well and at that stage you don’t know if they (the officials) maybe have a wee doubt in their head because they’ve already given one. But it was a very good cup tie and it was a good opportunity missed. I’m gutted for the players and supporters. I thought we went about our business in a great manner, we put great energy into the game. We created chances but didn’t get the breaks we needed.”
Hearts might need a few breaks to continue in the cup given the identity of their semi-final opponents. However, you could not detect anything other than total confidence listening to their support. “Bring on the Celtic,” was the chant as the final whistle neared. Paisley nights out can occasionally be better than expected.